Metalsmithing Ideas for Artisan Bails: You Never Know From Whence Your Inspiration Will Spring

By Lexi Erickson (Foreign Correspondent)

I found bail design inspiration everywhere in Europe, even between the cutouts of the balconies of the Swiss chalets.

My most recent trip to Europe was not a pleasure trip (yeah, right) but a "working holiday." My first college degree was a BFA in Art History, so I knew I would focus on lots of historic homes, the inevitable massive cathedrals and churches (which are the only thing more prolific than Starbucks), and my favorite, the 7th-century hill forts.

Now one can only take so many days filled with magnificent Gothic cathedrals and the sapphire-colored stained-glass windows before one is overwhelmed with sensory overload and everything runs together. That happened by the third cathedral to my beloved spouse, so he found a seat where he could sip the favored National Beverage of Whatever-Germanic-Country-We-Were-In or the ubiquitous Italian beverage while I tramped through all the cathedrals.

Soon I tired of going up and down tower steps and the heat—107 degrees in Florence! This Mountain Mama is not used to heat or humidity. So, knowing I had an upcoming metalsmithing video workshop on making artisan bails, I concentrated on looking for things that would make pretty bails, like the fabulous and ingenious metalwork that is part of the architecture of Europe's Dark and Middle Ages. Their designs can be modified into unique and interesting bails, so I'm inspired to "kick it up a notch" and make my bails more interesting. You can too, with a bit of imagination.


One of the things that makes a bail truly unique is the addition of the back plate, or what I call a "bail plate," which is soldered onto the back of the piece. The actual bail sits on the top of the bail plate. The bail plate design should fit well within the shape of the piece's actual back plate. That gives you a flat area that you should fill with something beautiful. (Have I lost you yet?)

On my pendants, I love to use a small question-mark-shaped bail, but when it sits on top of a pretty bail plate, then the back of the piece may become as interesting and beautiful as the front of the piece. And when that happens, the bail and bail plate are a little secret for the wearer of the piece. That extra little surprise always delights my customers and helps set my jewelry apart from others. And don't forget, the back of the piece should be constructed as carefully as the front, the craftsmanship should be as good, and there should be no firescale, solder blobs, or unintentional scratches. I usually finish the back of my pieces with a 60-micron 3M finishing film, because if my customer scratches the back that I've highly polished, they get very upset. With their purchase I include a small piece of the finishing film or a piece of green kitchen scrubby so they may keep the brushed finish looking good.

Europe: A Feast for the Eyes in Old-World Craftsmanship

Everywhere I looked in Salzburg, there were decorative metal signs, which could inspire a new artisan bail design or a shape to make the back of your piece as beautiful as the front.

The decorations on the doors as keyholes or as hinges really inspired me.

There, on the door to the birthplace of Salzburg's favorite son, Mozart, was a perfect bail design. Creating the leaf cutouts and folding the bail forward and soldering or riveting a small ball on the front would be so elegant.

The simple S-shaped handle from a gate on the "Sound of Music Tour" (yes, I'm a dork) would be a beautiful back plate on an oval or circular pendant. This hinge is from the cathedral where Maria (Julie Andrews) married Capt von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in the movie. In reality, they were married at Nonnburg Abbey in Salzburg.  

The hinge from the St. Michael's Church in Mondsee, Austria, which was the movie setting for the wedding of Maria and Captain von Trapp, was a simple yet elegant design. Just extend the left side of the bail in a straight line, fold it upward, and solder it on a pendant.

In Rüdesheim on the romantic Rhine (where I could so easily live forever), we visited the Abbey of St Hildegard von Bingen, the 11th-century mystic and my favorite nun. (Doesn't everyone have a favorite nun?) There were several striking pieces of metalwork at the abbey that could be adapted into an artisan bail. By curling some square wire for the sides, and making a jump ring out of the center vertical square wire, you would have a beautiful and unique bail.

Now if you are a glutton for punishment, you could try to copy this entire hinge as a bail backplate or just use the center section, extending the left side then fold it over for a bail (or the door handle, inset).

The hinges from several cathedrals in Frankfurt are magnificent and could form an incredible artisan bail for a piece, either riveted or soldered on. This would make the most elegant bail back plate–I can just see it on a piece!
More inspiring metalwork in Frankfurt.

When you watch my new video workshop, Artisan Bails, think of what your bail plate inspirations could be. Maybe it's the strap hinge of a Stickley-designed sideboard, maybe it's the carved post on your front porch. Look for inspirations when you travel, and take close ups of hinges or keyholes. Whatever inspires you will give you a chance to make some beautiful changes in your current designs.

A bail is not just a bail. It is not something that is a last-minute thought. The design of the entire piece should be considered, from start to finish, before you commit to cutting that first piece of metal. A jump ring is the least effective bail for a piece of art jewelry. It works fine for a small pearl or diamond drop, but your piece of metalwork or fine art jewelry deserves more consideration. So "kick it up a notch" and do something different. You've probably never really considered bail design as something exciting and challenging, but it is. Go for it, and make something outstanding. You won't be disappointed. And I hope you like my new Artisan Bails video workshop and have as much fun coming up with new designs as I had designing new bails to share with you.

May your bezels never melt,

You can order Lexi's Artisan Bails video workshop DVD or instant downloadly the video from from the Jewelry Making Daily Shop!

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